Near the beginning of “Earwig,” the latest trip down the darkest of rabbit holes by the French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic, a 10-year-old girl admires a landscape painting, seated before it in an image similar to the famous scene from “Poltergeist.” Fascinated, she runs her fingers over the rough canvas and its vibrant colors; it’s a moment not unlike the experience of watching the film, which can feel like being hypnotized by disturbingly palpable still lifes from the unconscious realm.
Set somewhere in midcentury Europe (though everything feels as if it were ripped out of a 19th-century Gothic novella), “Earwig” takes place mostly indoors, between the jaundiced, windowless walls of a near-empty dwelling. The girl, Mia (Romane Hemelaers), has teeth made of ice, which are melted down and remolded each day by Albert (Paul Hilton), a cadaverous man whose unseen and menacing overlords croak cryptic orders to him over the phone.
Like in her past films, Hadzihalilovic explores the psychic tensions of a cloistered, ritualized existence — this time taking on the point of view of an adult (Albert) to create a loose drama around the event of Mia’s release. One day, the bosses tell Albert that he will no longer serve as the girl’s warden, upending his womblike routine and sending him into a macabre frenzy complete with visions of what may be his long-dead wife, broken-bottle bloodshed and a jarring suicide attempt at the lake. These events are woven together by a twinkling uncanny score and blurred lights that function like title cards.
Hadzihalilovic is an expert conjurer of other worlds, and “Earwig” unearths a startlingly seductive array of visual and sonic textures that don’t quite add up to much more than a powerful mood. There’s no big revelatory payoff, even though there’s the semblance of (or the attempt at) one — best to let this one simply wash over you should you choose to sip the magic tea.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. In theaters.